Skip to content

A Fundamental Difference

One of the hallmarks of the Lutheran Church is its proper understanding and application of the
Bible’s two main teachings—Law and Gospel. Dr. C.F.W. Walther’s seminal work, The Proper
Distinction Between Law and Gospel, is the basis for this two-year series. Note: page numbers given are accurate for the 1929 and 1986 editions of the book.

“Thesis I–The doctrinal contents of the entire Holy Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testament, are made up of two doctrines differing fundamentally from each other, viz., the Law and the Gospel.”
About a decade into homeschooling, surprising gaps can begin to surface, even regarding skills normally mastered in preschool. For example, you might discover your teenager has difficulty discerning left from right. Or is that right from left?
It’s a fundamental distinction. Without it, following Google maps through multi-lane city traffic can be a terrifying experience. Without it, asking your son for the book just to his left—no, his other left—can lead to an intense father-son moment.
But far worse than the frustration of trying to find something on your “other” left is an “other Gospel,” which is no good news at all (Galatians 1:7-8). Thus, Walther warns of grave spiritual danger whenever man obscures the foundational distinction of God’s Word: “My aim is rather to show you how easy it is to work a great damage upon your hearers by confounding Law and Gospel.” (page 6)
Confounding Law and Gospel has led some to misconstrue the Old Testament God as an evil deity distinct from Jesus. The Pope distorts the Gospel into the means to earn your way into heaven. Likewise, many pastors today proclaim the Law as some kind of path to success and the Gospel as mere motivation to do better.
This confusion conjures up images of a capricious God Who is nice one day, mean the next. Such doubts can make daily life seem confusing, even terrifying—like trying to navigate with a jumbled up left and right.
But everything begins to come into focus when the distinctive contrasts between Law and Gospel are simply allowed to stand: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
(2 Corinthians 3:6)
The Law reveals your sin. It commands and demands.
The Gospel reveals your Savior. It promises, offers, creates.
As complementary opposites, the Law and Gospel could not be farther apart in terms of purpose and results, yet one can only be completely true if the other is as well. Their apparent dissonance, though, finds resolution where the Law and Gospel meet—the cross, one intense Father-Son moment which gave rise to your eternal life.
Thus you find both Law and Gospel throughout the Scriptures. From the beginning, the promise of salvation in the Seed of the woman is proclaimed and echoed (Genesis 3:15). Jesus Himself reiterates that He came not “to destroy the Law or the Prophets . . . but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) As one consistent message from the fall of man right up until the final day, God repeats and repeats His Law and His Gospel with the ultimate goal and desire of the soul’s salvation.
This Law/Gospel distinction lies beneath and explains many apparent contradictions in the Bible. It also gives hope to every confusing moment in life, as your personal journey comes into focus through faith in Christ. There is great joy to be found in a God Who communicates both Law and Gospel so clearly, and both for your eternal good!
Knowing your Law from your Gospel is no mere preschool skill. It is the foundational premise of everything God has to say. So, if you ever find yourself lost in doubt, confused about which direction to take next, repeat it again: “The Law shows me my sin; the Gospel shows me my Savior,” and marvel how divine wisdom can be both so basic and yet, at the same time, so advanced.

Timothy Daub is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Hecla, South Dakota.

[To read Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel for free on-line, and to access related Bible class materials, go to]